Review: Clifford J. Green and Michael P. DeJonge’s The Bonhoeffer Reader

The Bonhoeffer Reader
By Clifford J. Green

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was on my short list of “to read” for 2014. So I gladly agreed to take a look at The Bonhoeffer Reader when the opportunity presented itself. This book is over 800 pages of Bonhoeffer goodness; while not exhaustive, it will be comprehensive for Bonhoeffer’s average reader. It includes the works you would expect and want from a Bonhoeffer reader-- Discipleship and Life Together, for example--and some of his more robust works like the Lectures on Christology and Ethics. I decided to read Life Together and Lectures on Christology. 

First a few comments on the volume as a whole. It’s a nicely bound and handsome book. Even with 800 pages, it’s not too heavy you can’t hold it and read comfortably. It’s not so tightly bound as to make reading the inner margins difficult. It also represents the first selection of Bonhoeffer taken from the translation of his official complete works. I’m no German scholar, but the translation was clean and enjoyable to read. I went through and sampled some of the other selections and even the denser works were readable.The translation makes all the difference when reading theology in another language. Take for instance Calvin’s Institutes. The difference between Battle and Beveridgeis the difference between enjoyment and drudgery for many. All that to say. If you’ve read Bonhoeffer previously and found it difficult, I’d give this reader a try.

A few brief comments on the text. I found the Godward focus of Bonhoeffer refreshing. He is thoughtful and provocative. He cares deeply about piety (meant in the best way). He cares deeply about keeping Jesus Christ in our vision at all times. In his Christology lectures, he corrects and corrects and pushes our thoughts on Christ to answer who He is. He calls this who question, “the quintessential religious question” (264). I couldn’t agree more. I had a professor in college who would say that if you wanted to know what someone else believed simply ask them, “Who is Jesus?” Bonhoeffer goes on to say, “There are only two possibilities when a human being confronts Jesus: the human being must either die or kill Jesus” (268). And later, “Everything depends on knowing whether Jesus Christ was the idealistic founder of a religion or the very Son of God” (270). He also very adamant that the Jesus Christ we worship is the historical Jesus (285-ff). “The Christ whom we proclaim, is the historical Christ” (286). Those quotation give you a taste of Bonhoeffer’s Christward vision. One of the only head scratchers for me was his proclamation that the virgin birth “remains open, because the Bible leaves it open” (308). As with anyone human author, read with discretion.

Finally, Life Together justifies his religious life at Finkenwalde seminary. The introduction notes that this community was accused by many Lutherans of being “monkish” and “legalistic” (514). Bonhoeffer went to great lengths to demonstrate the community was only living out the implications of the gospel--which in one sense demands life together in a community. This work still keeps Jesus front and center. “Christian community,” says Bonhoeffer, ”means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ” (517). Also, “Christians live entirely by the truth of God’s Word in Jesus Christ” (518). And “We have access to one another, joy in one another, community with one another through Christ alone” (529). The tension between the community and individual life in Life Together reminded me of what we find in the Psalm. Even the Psalmists most individual lament most often comes back to God’s promises to the believing community.  Bonhoeffer often thrives in that tension. The second half of Life Together moves from the theological foundation to the liturgy of life (as a community and as an individual)--a movement we see in many of Paul’s letters (doctrine to life).

The Bonhoeffer Reader is a collection that all should own. It’s handsomeness, ease of use, and price make it a no brainer for Christians who want to get to know Bonhoeffer more.  His focus on Christ which then turns one towards Christian worship and love is a needed correction in today’s church where so little of what’s done is rooted to any kind of Christological soil.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”